Help! Innovators Needed

One of the challenges of intrapreneurship is identifying key innovators within an organization. Despite efforts to instill a culture that champions everyone as an innovative thinker, we often find in consulting that executives want someone to whom they can look for innovation pace setting. The question often becomes how to determine who has the strongest innovation DNA. When I was enrolled in an MBA program at Elon, my instructor invited us to take a Creax assessment to analyze out ability to be creative in problem solving and idea commercialization. Last week, I ran across a blog post from my friend Jeffrey Phillips that discussed this very issue and how his firm, Ovo Innovation, approaches the challenge.

creative wordleJeffrey points out that many good innovators aren’t “mainstream” corporate types.  In fact, he argues that “they may occupy positions that aren’t exciting, or may be people who are interested in change and uncertainty, while the rest of the organization is fixated on efficiency.  In other words, some of your best innovators may be shunted to secondary positions because their insights and feedback seem like complaining about the status quo.” He then makes a series of observations about common misconceptions:

Good innovators aren’t necessarily:

  • The “Experts” – too often organizations assign innovation activities to the people who know the issue or problem exceptionally well.  But these individuals often rule out ideas and narrow the scope too quickly based on past experience.  Thecurse of knowledgeblinds many experts to opportunities, or the fact that knowledge of the past or expertise today doesn’t guarantee success tomorrow.
  • Prominent leaders.  Many good leaders achieved their roles through excellent financial prowess and are good at asking tough questions about profitability and cost.  Frequently these individuals struggle in innovation activities because the ROI is so uncertain, and they reduce the scope and possibilities to conform to their own financial models or expectations.
  • “Idea People”.  In any organization there are people who have ideas or who are very creative, but they may not be your best innovators.  Like Michael Keaton’s character in Night Shift they may record ideas (“feed the tuna fish mayonnaise”) but those ideas may not be valuable or practical or solve customer needs.

These observations are significant, because they demonstrate that there are number of desirable competencies that innovators have in common:

  • Deeply curious about how and why things work and how they can be better
  • Experimentive, willing to try things, make small tests
  • Comfortable with risk and ambiguity
  • Eager for change
  • Very empathetic to customer needs and market conditions
  • Not locked into the “way we do things”
  • Can look at problems from a new perspective or a “naive” viewpoint

In order to identify those key innovators, he recommends some different assessments:

The first we use is The Innovator’s DNA, an excellent book that calls out five characteristics of successful innovation leaders:  associating, questioning, experimenting, observing and networking.  

Next we use assessments like Foursight, which suggests that individuals have specific skills that are applicable at different phases in an innovation activity, from clarifying to ideating to developing and implementing.  This helps place the right people in the right task at the right time.

Next we assess the individual and their tolerance for risk, change and ambiguity.  Good innovators are comfortable with extending scope, doing new things, cannibalizing existing products, entering new markets. They are comfortable with ambiguity – not everything has to be perfectly understood or “black and white”.  They are often entrepreneurial, interested in new products or opportunities as opposed to supporting and sustaining the existing processes or products.

Hopefully, you can use these tools to help identify innovation talent in your organization!

 

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Do You Understand Which Customers You Want to Develop?

Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with an entrepreneur to discuss how an idea is going to be commercialized, a hot topic is “who is your buyer, and how will you win them?” Amazingly, many who aspire to start businesses (even some who have been in business) have very little strategic insight into the answer to this question. By going after the universe, in a shotgun method, the business owner shortchanges the enterprise of the opportunity to develop authentic connections with targeted customers who become loyalists. We break the broad question down into tactical components such as how to listen to customer input and revise a product or service offering. Yesterday I read a LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, the author of The Startup Owner’s Manual. Blank wrote about an interaction with a former student who claimed that following Blank’s advice on customer development was causing his company to fail:

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sounds good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.” OK, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.” That took me aback. Everything? I asked? “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested. We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated. .  . everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

Customer developmentWhat’s your business model?
“Business model? I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder and said, “Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it? Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight. All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model –how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money. And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them. It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

Blank then shared the lessons learned by his student:

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model

Gorillas Ask 7 Questions in Marketing: Do You?

Rediscovering a classic book is such a treat. Business books can, however, become outdated. New editions containing updates for changing market conditions can ensure a timeless and informative experience for the reader. In the field of marketing, Jay Conrad Levinson and his wife and business partner, Jeannie wrote a quintessential work on small business marketing, the Guerrilla Marketing Field Guide. They have released a new and updated version, serving the needs of a new generation of guerilla marketers.

Guerilla marketingToday, marketing seems very complicated. In a blog post last month for Entrepreneur.com, the Levinson’s argued that a marketing strategy, however,  doesn’t have to be complex. They believe that a comprehensive strategy can be articulated in seven brief sentences:

  • The first sentence tells the physical act your marketing should motivate.
  • The second sentence spells out the prime benefit you offer.
  • The third sentence states your target audience or audiences.
  • The fourth sentence states what marketing weapons you plan to use.
  • In your fifth sentence, you define your niche or what you stand for: economy, service, quality, price, uniqueness, anything.
  • The sixth sentence states the personality of your company.
  • The seventh sentence states your marketing budget, expressed as a percentage of your projected gross sales.

They describe in the book how such a strategy highlights the prospective buyers targeted by the marketing. They recommend starting with the people and then working backward to the offering. By organizing this way, results become more easy to attain, planning to obtain the results has meaning, and a specific call to action can be developed without much additional work. By doing this “blocking and tackling,” your team is able to anticipate market shifts over the long haul. The Levinson’s suggest the following:

The strategy must be expressed in writing, and it should not contain headlines, theme lines or copy. The strategy is devoid of specific marketing copy because it must be solid, yet flexible. Specific words and phrases pin you down. A strategy should be developed as your guide, not as your master.

After you’ve written all seven steps, read it a couple of times, then put it away for 24 hours. It’s just too important to be accepted — or rejected — hastily. Look at your strategy from a fresh perspective on a different day. See if you still love it and believe in it.

When is the best time to change that strategy? The first time you see it — before you’ve invested any money in it. After you’ve finalized it, don’t change it again for at least six months; then do a review and see if you need to tweak your strategy. If you have it right, you may not need to make any changes for several years.

Your approved strategy should be pinned up on bulletin boards and emblazoned in the minds of everyone who creates marketing for you. Keep the strategy handy in a drawer, on your desktop, or in an accessible file so you can reach for it the moment anyone presents even a tiny opportunity for marketing to you . . . or when you have a killer idea yourself.

Now that you know what we mean by marketing strategy, it’s time for you to create one for yourself.

Ask yourself these questions so you can create your seven-sentence marketing strategy:

  1. What physical act do I want people to take after being exposed to my marketing (click here, call a phone number, complete this coupon, or look for my product next time they’re at the store)?

  2. What prime benefit do I offer? What competitive advantage do I want to stress?

  3. Who is my target audience?

  4. What marketing weapons will I use?

  5. What will my market niche be?

  6. What identity do I want my business to have

  7. My marketing budget will be _______% of our projected gross sales.

Following this outline will help organize your small business around what’s really important. Good luck!

 

 

Be Bold and Flexible In Leading Others

One of the challenges that leaders face is the need to customize their approach to individuals under their charge, at the same time as driving corporate performance. Far easier is it to try a singular approach–either one we’ve seen others before us model or one that is very comfortable. To be observant and empathetic enough to notice what others need, in what measures, and at what distinct moments delivered in ways that are point is a skill–particularly if you as a leader are able to do this consistently for many who look to you for guidance, direction, and nurture.

Nick Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership wrote, “Hindsight does not lead to foresight since the elements and conditions of the system can be in continual flux”? Understanding what we should have done in a particular situation does not, as Petrie indicates, bode well necessarily for interacting with others going foreward. 

Jane Perdue, in a blog post last Friday, says that “it’s time to hang up on heroic leadership — the notion that a single person has all the answers — and embrace a new orientation to leading yourself and others: flexibility.” She quotes Scott Yorkovich, adjunct faculty at Capella University, in defining  flexible leadership as the “ability to receive and process diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information, the openness to implement a variety of strategic solutions, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

Perdue  writes that “getting comfortable with ambiguity is a must in a turbulent business environment filled with perpetual transitions. Having a boundary-spanning mindset is crucial for successful personal and professional leadership.” She recommends the tips below to assist in developing a leadership style that is adaptive and connecting:

contrarian

  • Be the water. The past’s linear lessons have questionable applicability in today’s hyper-connected, technology-driven, multiple-generations business world. The mental scripts we’ve written based on our past experiences can limit our ability to think and respond creatively, a performance gap that can render us obsolete. Flexible leaders are fluid — managing to drive change and innovation while still preserving a core of stability.
  • Transcend ego. Agile leaders naturally think less of “me” and more of “we,” having long ago abandoned command-and-control power trips. As Ben Dattner, adjunct professor at New York University, advises us, “Twenty-first century leaders might benefit from thinking of themselves as being in the center of a web rather than on top of a pyramid.”
  • Keep the number of rules, policies and procedures to a minimum. Four-inch-thick policy binders foster rigidity and stifle innovation. Flexible leaders know when to go by the book and when to take a risk. “If you want to encourage more risk-taking in your company or your unit, you’ll need to reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the costs,” writes Ron Ashkenas, an organizational transformation consultant.
  • Embrace the contrarian. We’re rewarded for and conditioned to rely on our strengths, a default position that sometimes prompts us to marginalize ideas generated by those with whom we disagree or discount. The trouble is that over-reliance on a strength can become a weakness. Flexible leaders seek out those with alternate points of views and listen closely to what they have to say before things go wrong.
  • Think paradoxically. Managing contradictions and opposites are the power breakfast of flexible leaders. One’s leadership focus may be on task completion, yet there is still an understanding that building and maintaining relationships is equally important. Flexible leaders are both strong and vulnerable, provide both structure and managed chaos, and value hard and soft skills equally.

 

Demand Leadership Innovation Like a SEAL

My son is a senior in high school. He has his mind made up on entering the special forces. His top choice would be the Navy SEALs. Many, many, many of our conversations are about the SEALs these days. Recently, I came across the Navy SEAL Creed: “We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me. My training is never complete.”  

Anyone who knows much about the Navy SEAL job requirements would not be surprised that the training required to be selected is extremely rigorous. Physical and mental training beyond compare prepares one a recruit to join the ranks of the “elite.” However, as former Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson writes, “you realize you are just another new guy in an already well-established organization. And it only gets tougher from there. The training never ends, and every single mission is rehearsed.”

Seal subWell-run businesses are very similar. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dan Cathy, the current president of Chick-fil-A. Cathy discussed  the extensive training they provide every new hire and how they try to help the employees to anticipate needs rather than simply wait for them to be expressed. 

Gleeson described key characteristics of leaders:

1.     Leaders define the mission. A clearly defined mission starts with the leadership, is ingrained in the team, and is constantly reviewed. Mission success relies more on training than it does on planning. Rarely is a plan executed exactly as it has been laid out, because external forces prevent this. Thus the leadership and team must be ready to adapt. Adaptation requires ability, and ability comes from training.

2.     Leaders set, and reset, the vision. It’s up to leadership to know when shifts in a company’s vision must happen. The organization’s ultimate direction may not change but how you get there most certainly will. That means having a keen understanding of industry trends, economic cycles, and competitive movement. Leaders must be constantly acquiring knowledge and looking to the future.

3.     Leaders build the team. As a company grows it will require different types of talent. If you find the right people and train them accordingly, they will stick around and the business will thrive. It takes good leadership to identify who to hire and the roles to put those people in. This too requires ongoing knowledge development.

4.     Leaders embrace the necessity of growth, both personal and professional. If the mind and body are not in a constant state of growth, eventually things stagnate and progress stalls. Instilling the importance of learning in the team is one thing, but leadership has to embrace this first. Great leaders are always seeking knowledge, developing their minds, and maintaining their bodies. Mental and physical wellness is essential for optimal leadership.

5.     Leaders execute. An organization’s strategic plan means nothing without exceptional execution. As a company grows, the methods of mission execution will change. So will the way in which products and services are provided. The leadership has to build this into the culture, provide the team the proper resources, and remove obstacles. Companies that fail do not fail because the plan wasn’t good enough. They fail because the leaders didn’t execute.

All of these are great guidelines for leaders. What I want to return to from the SEAL Creed is the expectation of innovation. This expectation is something I’d like to see more businesses embrace. The fact that they don’t creates a need for great leaders to champion culture changes.